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“Will we get justice?” victims in Abok ask the ICC

25 January 2017 - 09:01

Dominic Ongwen is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for allegedly leading the Abok massacre of 2004, but victims there still wonder if they will receive justice.

21 year old Joel from Ariba parish in Abok sub-county still vividly remembers the 8th of July 2004 as if it happened yesterday. He’s dressed in a red shirt and black trousers and is sitting on the veranda of the sub-county headquarters to listen to the Registrar of the International Criminal Court, Herman von Hebel, speak to victims of the Abok massacre.

When I asked him about the day the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked Abok IDP camp, he says he was only eight years old and he was with his family when the rebels started attacking the camp.

“I was with my mother and father and some of my relatives,” says Joel, “Then I started hearing gun-shots being fired from different directions in the camp that evening.”

Joel adds that the rebels did not actually come straight to the IDP camp. They initially went to a church, St. Peter’s Chapel, a kilometer away and ate mangoes while waiting for sunset. According to Joel there was a Uganda People's Defence Force army detach surrounding the camp and the soldiers were aware that the rebels were already in Ariba within the community.

“The army knew that the rebels had passed but they said, ‘let the rebels teach the locals in that area’ because they had refused to live well with other people in the camp.”

People were slaughtered like animals

At around 7 pm, there was heavy gun fire between the rebels and the UPDF soldiers who were guarding the camp, Joel says. The government soldiers had told people in the camp to lie inside trenches that they had dug inside their homes to stop the flying bullets from hitting them but when the rebels overpowered the army many people started running out of their hiding places, scampering in different directions.

Then the rebels started torching the huts in the camp and shooting indiscriminately at anyone found in the trenches. According to Joel, some people were hacked by machetes while others were slaughtered with knives like animals. Joel and his family were lucky to escape and ran deep into a nearby swamp where they hid until morning. His uncle, however, was burnt to death in the attack.

Joel later heard that the commander of the attack was Dominic Ongwen, the commander of the LRA’s Sinia brigade. Dominic Ongwen is currently being tried at the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including allegedly leading the massacre at Abok. Joel, like many of the victims in Abok, says the ICC should prosecute Ongwen and punish him for crimes he is alleged to have committed as a rebel leader. Many are still very angry with what transpired on that fateful day of the attack. Joel also says the ICC or the Ugandan government should construct a hospital or a school that will benefit the whole community as a way of compensating them for their losses.

The government or the ICC should compensate us

Like Joel, Christine Abang, 40, says that day will be stay with her forever. It was the day her husband was shot dead leaving her with eight children to take care of. She agrees with Joel that the government or the ICC should compensate the victims who lost their loved ones in the attack because many are now struggling to raise children who were orphaned.

About 4,109 victims have been accepted to participate in the proceedings in the Ongwen case for the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is charged with. The victims are represented by two different teams of lawyers. A first group of approximately 2,600 participating victims is represented by Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francisco Cox, who were chosen by these victims under a Rome Statute provision which allows victims to choose their representative. Paolina Massidda from the Office of Public Counsel for Victims and Jane Adong represent a second group of approximately 1,500 victims who did not choose a lawyer.

A 'just' justice

While addressing thousands of people who had gathered at the sub-county headquarters on 6 December 2016, von Hebel said the Rome Statute empowers the Court to make reparations orders against convicted persons. He stressed, however, that the victims who are affected by atrocities allegedly committed by Ongwen and his LRA associates will be compensated only after he is found guilty and that compensation will be a long process.

The trial of Ongwen began on 6 December 2016 at the ICC’s headquarters in The Hague, The Netherlands. While Ongwen denied all charges brought against him, the main question will be whether the victims get a ‘just’ justice, as Cypriano Ayoo, the chairperson of the Abok Victims association, asks.

Photo: Women welcome a team of ICC officials to Abok Sub-county, Oyam District on 6 December 2016.

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